The Big Question: Why are Britain's graveyards falling into disrepair, and what can be done?

Why are we asking this now?

Yesterday, some of Britain's leading experts on burial grounds met up at a conference organised by the Institute of Conservation, to discuss what can be done to save our last resting places from falling into total disrepair.

Is this a new problem?

The problem has existed for years, but our graveyards are getting fuller and fuller. That means there is more preservation work to do, and less time in which to do it. The consensus is that if action is not taken urgently, a chunk of Britain's heritage will be lost for good, as memorials and gravestones from a bygone age degrade beyond the point of no return. "We have this idea of pleasing decay," says Roger Bowdler, head of designations at English Heritage. "So we gently let them go and that's fine. But then, suddenly, they reach a tipping point and it's too late."

So what might be lost, and why does it matter?

Of graveyards that are designated as heritage sites, about 10 per cent are grade-one listed. Many more host significant examples of Victorian or earlier architecture and design. "They are really renowned around the world," adds Mr Bowdler. "They are a really peculiarly English achievement."

Tim Morris, the chief executive of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management, says: "In an old cemetery, the first thing you notice is the architecture. They give a snapshot of another time."

More broadly, experts point to the possibility of reclaiming graveyards as public land: they account for a significant share of the green space in some urban areas. In the London Borough of Newham, for instance, 60 per cent of public land is devoted to burial places. In the past, they have been as likely a spot for a family to go for a walk as a public park. Keeping them in good repair would encourage people to see them as pleasant places to spend time, giving communities a chance of reclaiming graveyards from the clichéd menace of drunks and teenage yobs.

What kind of damage are we talking about?

All kinds of memorials decay over time. Rain gradually erodes the stone, making the small details that make the particular piece unique disappear. Acid rain, in particular, causes salt movement within a headstone or memorial that eventually leads to the block fracturing. And rising damp from the soil can have similarly damaging effects. The other major nemesis of the well-kept graveyard is plant life. If ivy grows into a crack, the continued growth of the plant can cause the gap to widen and widen until it falls apart.

If they're so important, why is this being allowed to happen?

The biggest single problem is that the most significant architectural pieces – grand memorials, generally to illustrious figures of the Victorian age – are the private property of the family of the deceased, which means it is their responsibility to look after the epitaph, rather than the church or municipal authority's.

Since most of the most ornate and interesting examples are from the 19th century – an era so morbid that it has been called 'The Great Age of Death' – the families in question may no longer be particularly interested, or feel a strong enough connection with their forebears to put in the necessary time and expense. And, of course, people are far less likely to live in the same place as their grandparents or great-grandparents than they would have been a century ago, further diluting the connection. Meanwhile, the legacies that were left to pay for the preservation of such monuments by the people buried beneath them have been made almost worthless by the ravages of inflation.

So it's the families' fault?

Not entirely. You can also put the blame on unscrupulous business people. Private cemeteries are an enterprise with diminishing returns, for obvious reasons: as a graveyard fills up, the financial benefit of keeping it in good repair becomes less and less significant. In the 1960s, many cemeteries were simply abandoned. These days, entrepreneurs looking to make money from the dead are more likely to turn to crematoria, where space restrictions – for similarly obvious reasons – are no problem at all.

Shouldn't churches and councils pay up, then?

In an ideal world, absolutely. But it would be very hard to persuade a hard-up local authority (especially one with its money in an Icelandic bank) that the preservation of dead people's property should be high on its list of priorities – especially when it already has to cope with the fact that it is legally obliged to offer burial places to every one of its residents. Parish funds, meanwhile, are generally absorbed by the preservation of the country's crumbling churches, which doesn't leave much for anything else.

So how can the money be found?

In these difficult economic times, the onus is likely to fall on local communities. There are some precedents. When cemeteries in Highgate in north London and Nunhead in south-east London were abandoned in the 1960s, for instance, community groups that valued the wildlife and saw a romantic quality to the graveyards stepped in to look after them. And in Bloomsbury, central London, a fully-occupied graveyard was turned into the well-loved St George's Gardens in the 1800s, and became an "open-air sitting room". Mr Bowdler is also hopeful that a growing public interest in genealogy may make people keener to preserve the burial places of their ancestors. And there are grants available from English Heritage and the National Lottery fund for especially significant sites.

What should be done to take care of cemeteries?

The first step in most places is to perform an inventory. That's a daunting task at somewhere like Kensal Green Cemetery in north London, which has at least 250,000 bodies in 75,000 graves, but it is crucial if families are to be contacted and asked if they will contribute to the upkeep of their forebears' memorials. Then it's simply a matter of a labour intensive process of cleaning and restoration. In the long run, preventative action is crucial: it is much simpler to remove a shoot of ivy from the side of a headstone than it is to repair the crack that appears in the stone months or years later.

Is the problem ever likely to go away?

Not unless a solution is found to the problem of our overcrowded graveyards: Britain is running severely short of final resting places. It is the only country in Europe where re-use of existing sites is not commonplace, a practice which was common until the 19th century, even here. There is still an urgent need to make more use of the 80 per cent of graveyards which are already occupied. A recent change in the rules in London, and expected expansion of those regulations to the whole country, should help to address the problem by allowing the re-use of graves more than 100 years old if there is no objection from living relatives. Without that change, the continued growth in numbers of fresh sites will only add to the amount of maintenance needed, and the problem will continue to grow for generations to come. The only consolation is that, by then, we will all be six feet under ourselves.

Are cemeteries bound to be ruined?

Yes...

* The money left by the occupiers for upkeep has either been used up or made worthless by inflation.

* Councils and churches can't afford to spend money on something that mainly benefits the dead.

* As our burial places fill up, the pressure on financial resources will increase still further.

No...

* An increasing interest in family history means that previously unconcerned relatives may pay up.

* There are some resources available from public bodies, and communities will also chip in.

* The law is changing to make the re-use of graves easier, which will stop the situation spiralling out of control.

Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
film
Sport
football
News
news
News
people

Britain First criticised for using actress's memory to draw attention to their 'hate-filled home page'

Arts and Entertainment
A photograph taken by David Redferm of Sonny Rollins
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Senior Research Fellow in Gender, Food and Resilient Communities

£47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: The Centre for Agroecology, ...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker